Opinion: I’m a capitalist, but the free market sometimes stinks

It’s hardly surprising that dairy farmers are always protesting. I would imagine the resentment builds inside you after 30 years of being defecated on in your workplace. I would be consumed with bitterness if I had to get out of bed that early.

Have you listened to Radio 2 at 5am? I can tell any arable farmers reading that it’s a bleak and joyless parallel universe. Given the tough nature of producing milk, it astounds me that there always seems to be too much of it.

When Farmers For Action first started mobilising their troops, I wasn’t in favour of the milk price protests. I’m essentially a capitalist economist – unprofitable businesses should change or quit in my view. I couldn’t believe the cheek of them using shiny new Fendt tractors to disrupt their customers and to extort higher prices.

In the intervening years, I have become more sympathetic to the position of the protesters. Producing human nutrition from pasture is one of the noblest jobs on earth and I don’t object to anybody shouting about that in public.

I can see that some dairy farmers have made big investments on the back of rising prices and are now in a difficult position. I’m unconvinced of the wisdom, the benefit or the morality of them disrupting other people’s livelihoods to demand more money, but I support the idea of raising awareness.

Standing around in the cold and dark waving banners isn’t going to alter the global market price, but if it makes these farmers feel better and at the same time tells consumers the consequences of their actions, then that’s a good result.

I’m pretty sure that whatever the short-term effect of blockading dairy plants, “direct action” won’t reverse the need for larger herd sizes, greater cost-efficiency and customer partnerships in the dairy sector.

Some farms are currently able to produce the same goods at a lower cost than others and it will be these that succeed. The quest to produce cheaper, better food in the developed world is driving us all this way, whether we go willingly or otherwise.

The industrialisation of agriculture has had many such painful social consequences. Other manufacturing industries have been suffering the same way for centuries; protests against “progress” have been a regular occurrence since the Tolpuddle Martyrs and the Luddites.

None have yet managed to stop capitalism in its tracks, but at least they have made us a more fair and just society. They have given our nation a conscience.

Although most farmers were unsympathetic at the time, maybe now we understand that when the miners were protesting in the 1980s, they weren’t just fighting for their jobs, but for their communities, their dignity and their sense of identity. They were showing society what it was doing to them in the name of progress. This is the same role the dairy protests are performing now.

Although there are many aspects about the method and spirit of the blockades that I disagree with very strongly, I sympathise deeply with the human stories that have led to this action.

I know that the greatest fear for most farmers is seeing their land and their life’s work unfeelingly swallowed up by a bigger competitor. I have to admire the protesters for reminding us that ultimately the free market could treat the rest of us exactly like a cow treats the parlour man just after her tail has gone up.

Matthew Naylor farms 162ha of Lincolnshire silt in partnership with his father, Nev. Cropping includes potatoes, vegetables, cut flowers and flowering bulbs. Matthew is a trustee of Leaf and a Nuffield scholar.

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